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Cozy First Apartment

A cozy first apartment is complete with a mother’s touch

Written by Candace Ord Manroe
  • Max Kim-Bee

    Fresh out of college and ready to decorate her first apartment on her entry-level earnings as a fashion writer, Lauren McGrath did what came naturally. She turned to her mother.

    Always reliable for wise counsel, mom Suzanne Grua McGrath brought more to the creative table than a mother’s intuition. She’s an interior designer who, between design gigs, sandwiched in 10 years working alongside decorating maven Martha Stewart in TV development. Always up for a staging, Suzanne rolled up her sleeves and steamed ahead at the first whiff of a design collaboration with her daughter. And in the easy give-and-take that characterizes this mother-daughter relationship, she happily shared the driver’s seat with Lauren.

    "We both knew that whenever I got my first apartment, we would decorate it together," explains Lauren. "We actually started collecting things for it while I was still in college."

    After graduating from Bowdoin College with a degree in art history, Lauren moved back home to Rye, New York, for a year. When she landed a job with Teen Vogue, she found her own place in a Brooklyn Heights brownstone. "I found this tiny apartment and instantly fell in love with its amazing deck, which is almost bigger than the apartment itself," she laughs.

    "I think Lauren envisioned lots of parties outdoors," injects Suzanne, who, ever practical, had a vision of her own--a creative design that’s recession-friendly.

    Each furnishing had to meet at least one of three criteria to give it longevity beyond the first-nest phase of Lauren’s life. "First, it had to have some kind of family history," notes Suzanne. "Second, it had to be easily transformed either in function or fashion to suit the space. And finally, it had to be versatile enough to move from room to room so it could be used in other residences over Lauren’s lifetime." Lauren adds, "We’re not interested in chasing the latest trend. We’re all about investing wisely in classic pieces that I can, potentially, own forever."

    Take the new small love seat in the living room, which can move with Lauren to other addresses to serve different functions. Two other new purchases, the curtains and bookshelves, were both affordable finds from IKEA. Lauren assembled the bookshelves herself. "She is incredibly capable and doesn’t need a lot," boasts her mom. "She has an amazing fashion sense, but she lives and travels light. My daughter packs a suitcase like no one I know."

    On the bookshelves above the radiator in the breakfast area is the white ceramic pottery collected by both mother and daughter. "There may be a McCoy or a piece of ironstone in there, but mainly our collections include nothing of any real value," says Suzanne. "The value is in the overall look. For us, pieces don’t have to be perfect to be beautiful. We are not purist collectors."

    One family piece--an American dresser handed down from Lauren’s great-grandparents--is the apartment’s focal point. "They gave it to me when I married," Suzanne says, "and I kept it for Lauren all these years because it was such a great piece."

    "The apartment is so small, we had to choose furnishings very carefully and make sure they were things I loved," explains Lauren. "Our whole thing is about choosing favorite pieces we know we can move with us from home to home."

    The "our whole thing" is the philosophy behind their popular mother/daughter blog, "It’s all about design and fashion and the joy of living with both," notes Suzanne.  Adds Lauren:  "It’s cross-generational. My mom’s friends are interested in learning what I think is fashionable and cool, and my friends are interested in my mother’s expertise on what furniture will last and what is valuable."

    Neither one had a doubt about the small Swedish occasional tables they spotted at a consignment store in Connecticut. Paired, the petite pieces are the perfect coffee table for the living room’s love seat. "I love their Swedish design, miniature scale, pretty gray paint, and intricate detailing," Lauren says. "When I move, they can work as side tables for a low bed."

    Lauren, no doubt, was influenced by her mother. But sometimes Suzanne fears she may have succeeded too well. "I’m amazed at Lauren’s tenacity. When we’re blogging together, I’ll think it’s fine, but she’ll say, ‘No, that’s not good enough.’ And I’m like, ‘Hey, I’m the Martha person!’"

    Design: Suzanne Grua McGrath, Suzanne McGrath Design, LLC, 611 Broadway, New York, NY 10012; 212/674-8841,

    Photography: Max Kim-Bee

  • Max Kim-Bee

    One of the few new pieces purchased for the apartment, the Mitchell Gold love seat in classic ticking satisfies one of Suzanne’s criteria--potentially, it can last a lifetime. "It’s great right now as this small living room’s main seating, but when Lauren gets older and moves, it will have new life in a master bedroom at the foot of the bed, or in a sunroom or breakfast nook," Suzanne forecasts. Beyond the piece’s versatile scale, what ensures its lasting attraction? "Comfort," Suzanne assures. "It’s extra-deep."

    Another "good bones" piece is the bold yellow lamp, which they found caked in dust at a flea market. "It adds the perfect pop of color," Lauren says.

    Upholstered love seat ("Odette"): Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams, 800/789-5401,
    Coffee tables (Swedish occasional tables): consignment store find.
    Yellow table lamp: vintage.
    Starburst twig mirror behind love seat; feather pillow; round end table; area rug; yellow pillow; mirror over dresser; lamp on dresser; table under window; round dining table: owner’s collection.

  • Max Kim-Bee

    When money is the object, do what any savvy decorator on a restricted budget does: Hunt down a convincing look-alike at a fraction of the price. "The curtains look remarkably similar to a wonderful Victoria Hagan pattern we both loved," notes Lauren. Unconcerned with impressing her friends and family with labels, Lauren was all about getting the look. With its high style and low price tag, this window dressing rates a TH editors’ double-thumbs up.

    Drapery: IKEA, 800/434-4532,

  • Max Kim-Bee

    Lauren modernized her great-grandparents’ dresser with fresh white paint and new hardware she found in a sale basket at Anthropologie. "Suddenly it was this great statement piece," observes Suzanne. Like everything else in the apartment, the dresser is hardworking. The top three drawers store Lauren’s clothing, while lower drawers contain a mishmash of everything from large-scale kitchen platters to linens.

    Neither Lauren nor her mom is out to incite envy, but Lauren does confess to loving it when her friends flip for her old cane-sided chair--one of a pair found on Craigslist for $25, total. Lauren painted the "really ugly pink" chair black, upholstered it in inexpensive fabric, and trimmed it with scraps of brown velvet. "The brown velvet piping gives it a little luxe look," she says. "It’s probably the most inexpensive thing here, but all my friends say, ‘Oh my gosh. Where did you get this chair?’ "

    Cane-sided chair: Craigslist.
    Black paint for cane chairs: Ralph Lauren Paint, 800/379-7656,
    Cane-chair fabric: dressmaker’s cloth with brown velvet piping.
    White dresser: family heirloom.
    Dresser hardware: Anthropologie, 800/309-2500,

  • Max Kim-Bee

    Recycled family furnishings include a pair of old Hitchcock chairs "that were black and so old-fashioned nobody in the family wanted them," recalls Suzanne. She claimed them from her parents’ Cape Cod home for Lauren, who refreshed them with white paint.

    Two chairs at dining table: The Hitchcock Chair Co., no longer in business.
    Painting of Eiffel Tower on bookshelf (by Kevin Berger): owner’s collection.

  • Max Kim-Bee

    "Lauren assembled the IKEA bookshelf herself," brags her mom. Because the white American pottery’s not precious, Lauren took liberties, guilt-free. "She spray-painted a couple of pieces to look like mercury glass," notes Suzanne. "There are some incredible spray paints out there."

    Bookshelves: IKEA, 800/434-4532,
    Pottery (American): owner’s collection.

  • Max Kim-Bee

    Lauren’s absolute favorite furnishing is an old desk-turned-vanity that Suzanne found cast out on a Brooklyn street 20 years ago. She appropriated it as a small corner writing table for her living room, then passed it on to Lauren for reinvention as a vanity. "Paired with an unusual vintage Lucite stool, it’s rejuvenated," says Suzanne. "It’s probably not worth anything, but it has good bones."

    Bed; bedding; lamp on vanity: owner’s collection.
    Vanity: a found item.
    Lucite stool: Antique & Artisan Center, 203/327-6022,

  • Max Kim-Bee

    An antique Murano mirror wasn’t a realistic option for the new college grad. Instead, the mom-daughter team found the next best thing—a new Venetian-style mirror with slight damage that resulted in a "great deal" from Anthropologie. Mounted on the wall above the desk, it completes the illusion--and real-life function--of the desk as a vanity. "We just cobbled together pieces for a great look," Suzanne explains, noting that the Victorian brush-and-mirror dresser set and mail-order alabaster lamp lend yet more charm to the ensemble.

    Mirror: Anthropologie, 800/309-2500, (product line varies).
    Glass-and-silver dressing table accessories: Consign-It, 203/869-9836.